Issue #257

NISSEI COMI REDUX: surfing the next wave

HUNKA HUNKA BURNING REVIEWS: catching up with Del Rey, TwoMorrows and others in the dog days reviewathon part 1

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: never mind snakes on a plane...

"Nissei comi" is a Japanese term used to refer, in a derogatory manner, to "manga" produced in America. The literal translation is "second generation comics," but the sense is "fake manga." And, despite the plaintive cries of the creators of nissei comi that manga is manga no matter where it's produced, the vast majority of American produced "manga" has been overtly (and pretty unconscionably) derivative of Japanese originals. (Or, worse, Japanese imitations of Japanese originals.) As I've mentioned many times, way too many Americans have swallowed the canard that there is a "manga style," and way too many have zealously copied what they perceive as that artistic style (though, in reality, there are dozens if not hundreds of manga styles and for all the strips you can find that share stylistic similarities you can find enough that don't that any attempt to pin down a manga "style" is purely delusional; part of the problem seems to be a confusion of "manga" style with far more rigid anime styles, though there, too, exists panoply approaches), so it's not surprising that "Amerimanga" hasn't much caught on, except for a rarified few like MEGATOKYO, which has more in common with manga spiritually than artistically.

That, however, may be on the verge of changing.

According to my friend, what seems to be appearing now is a second generation of manga fans. Not largely Japanese purests, as waves up until now (there have been several but for our purposes they can be considered one) have been, but new, younger readers brought up on a stew of the manga format, "anime-ted" cartoons like TEEN TITANS, online comics and graphic novels, who are aware of comics Japanese and American and hungry for the medium, but not wedded to Spider-Man or any particular movement.

I figure there are three possibilities: my friend is right (and in the moment he made a decent argument for it); it's pure utopianism, wishful thinking; or something in between.

I know that for some reason much of the American comics industry would like to believe it's the second possibility. We're self-deprecating like that. But.

If there's even a chance it's the first or third option, it's worth our while to pay attention to the phenomenon and figure out how to encourage and nurse it. Even today, most comics publishers are barely clinging to survival, but while everyone seems to agree new markets are the only thing that will help, no one has shown much initiative in developing them. This, possibly, is an already existing nascent new market and it's time, now, to figure out exactly what it is and what will appeal to it most. Because if we wait until all the rules and patterns have been set down, it'll be too late.

I don't have access to the raw data, so I have no way of assessing how accurate my friend's reading is. If anyone out there has a better fix on the situation, let us know.

From Del Rey Manga:

GURU GURU PON-CHAN Vol 5 by Satomi Ikezawa ($10.95)

And this series was so close to being over last volume. Ponta, the dog who transforms into a human girl, overcomes near tragedy to be reunited with her family and the boy she loves, as her absence gives them an excuse to crystallize their feelings about her. But things quickly get tasteless once again as Ponta hits the dog age of sexual readiness, though not awareness. You probably don't have to be a bestiality fetishist to enjoy this series, but I'm sure it helps. Eh.

PICHI PICHI PITCH: MERMAID MELODY Vol 2 by Pink Hamamori & Michiko Yokote ($10.95)

The second volume of what's basically "Sailor Moon underwater" improves considerably on the first, though many of the same flaws remain, mainly that because the mermaid heroines work their fighting magic by singing and there's no sound on the comics page, the villains (pictured as fleeing at the very sight of the mermaids) come off as pathetic. But the characterizations and relationships are expanded with a surer hand, with enough questions and variations on the main structure to keep it at least a little interesting. Then again, I'm probably not the target audience.

AIRGEAR Vol 1 by Oh!Great ($10.95)

Curious series. On the one hand, it's your basic teen fight manga, with young hero named Itzuki who's the best fighter in his neighborhood. It's typical stuff until he falls to a gang that uses special inline skates that let the user fly - and then it abruptly turns into OZ, at least for a moment. (The translation skirts the implications of the visuals.) While the subsequent vengeance and the hero's entrance into the rarified world of skateflying will be predictable to anyone who knows the formula, the books done with enough style, panache and surprises to hit its own level. It's a good gimmick and a good fight manga.

Q.KO-CHAN: THE EARTH INVADER GIRL Vol 1 by Ueda Hajime ($10.95)

On an earth torn by war between two alien races, a young boy acquires a sentient girl robot that turns into a giant Powerpuff Girl when he boards her. There's nothing sexual about it, though that's teased a little, and despite being the creation of FLCL's creator, so far the series has little of FLCL's wildly imaginative zaniness; it has all the pretty standard giant robot beats that you'd think the Japanese would be reluctant to return to after the psychological deconstruction (which is to say: utter demolition) of the genre in NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. The characters and art have a certain charm, though the latter's sketchiness and Hajime's tendency toward choppy storytelling and similar faces makes the story a bit hard to track. I'm not convinced.

SUGAR SUGAR RUNE Vol 3 by Moyoco Anno ($10.95)

What began as an innocuously silly little girl's fable about friendly young witches sent to the human world to prove their worthiness to become queen by winning hearts suddenly goes weird and a little dangerous as politics of the witch world spill over and the "good" girl of the book (the rival Vanilla, not the heroine Chocolat) is overwhelmed by self-doubt and turns to the dark side, as the heroine about love, emotion and magic herself. It's starting to get good.

NODAME CANTABILE Vol 6 by Tomoko Ninomija ($10.95)

The funny thing about manga is that stories without any pressworthy gimmick frequently end up among the best because they have to depend on character. This is one of those, revolving around classical music students forging relationships while coming to grips with their strengths and limitations and, with this volume, trying to figure out their place in a Japanese culture that gives them little value. In its simplicity, focus and refusal to give in to melodrama, NODAME CANTABILE remains on of the strongest books in Del Rey's line. Or anyone's.

GENSHIKEN Vol 6 by Kio Shimoku ($10.95)

Another slice of life comic, a brilliant tribute to and send up of the otaku mindset, following with great humor and affection, the lives of a school club dedicated to their love of manga, anime, toys, videogames, cosplay and perverse variations thereof. But what it's really about is uncertain kids growing up and becoming comfortable with themselves, in hilarious fits and starts. What I like most about it is the characters are never standing still; they learn and progress, they arrive, they graduate, their lives and attitudes change. The artwork is terrific, some of the best in all of comics. While I like many manga, there are only a handful I love. This is one of them. Get it.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

COMIC BOOK NERD #1 by Pete Von Sholly ($8.95)

A one-shot lampooning various comics-related magazines - who'd have thought there were that many? - in MAD magazine style. The humor tends toward the fratboy obvious (like Von Sholly's parody of Marvel's old SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN magazine as SLAVERING SWORD OF GONAD) and COMIC BOOK NERD suffers when read in one sitting rather than in bits and pieces, but when Von Sholly is on (as in the art lessons in SCRAWL! or "expert" discussions of back issue comics values in COMIC BOOK MEATMARKET) it's hysterical. Worth reading... just not all at once.

JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #46. ed. John Morrow ($9.95)

I don't imagine there's a hardcore Jack Kirby fan out there who doesn't know about THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR, one of the few examples of obsessive archeology in comics fandom. Newer comics readers, though, may wonder what was so great about Kirby (I've been known to ask that question myself) and this oversized issue is a good place to find out, since Kirby's inkers often robbed his work of much of its power and the COLLECTOR runs page after page of Kirby's pencil originals. In many cases, they're significantly more impressive than the published versions; they're worth the price of the magazine alone. This issue focuses on Kirby's abortive NEW GODS saga at DC that saw him at the height of his talent, at least artistically, and, while there's a good interview with Kirby and his wife Roz, as well as several exegeses of aspects of NEW GODS, maybe the most interesting section deals with Kirby's influence on other talents and uses of his characters and concepts since he left them. This is one of those magazines that's probably not for everyone who reads comics, but probably should be.

ALTER EGO #60, ed. Roy Thomas ($6.95)

One of the more coherent issues of ALTER EGO, this is a paean to The Flash, version 2, now more or less acknowledged as the character that launched the Silver Age. Interviews (like a fairly useless old one with Julie Schwartz and more interesting ones with Carmine Infantino and Robert Kanigher) round out articles on other superheroes of the '50s, lost '40s FLASH stories, and the mystery of Joe Kubert's absence from the series in the late '40s. Then there's the usual hodge-podge of other topics: a transcript from a John Broome interview at San Diego 1998, reminiscences of artist Tony DiPreta, tributes to Dick Rockwell & Alex Toth, Alex Ross art, and other features, not to mention the conclusion of the Captain Marvel (Shazam version)/Human Torch teamup. Still an oddball little magazine, but worth a look, particularly if you're a Silver Age fan.

WRITE NOW! #13. ed. Danny Fingeroth ($6.95)

I should mention this issue runs script and art pages from the little known crime thriller PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE that Tom Mandrake and I did for Moonstone recently. That aside, this is another good compilation of articles for aspiring media writers, including an interview with Simon Kinberg on translating comics to film, Kurt Busiek elaborating on his technique and professional history, a chat with Denny O'Neil on translating screenplays to prose, a preview of Jim Starlin's new MYSTERY IN SPACE series at DC, translating manga, and researching material. Anyone wanting to write comics (or film, or TV) isn't likely to learn any magic secrets here (mainly because there aren't any, except hard work) but if you can get past that childish desire, there's a lot of information to be gleaned here.

From Hard Boiled Comics:

HARD-BOILED COMICS #1 by Steven Earnhart, Marcelo Carmona, Carlose Devizia & Harsho Chattoraj ($2.95)

Starring Bill Blackburn P.I. Kind of hard to believe it took four people to create this. Not that it's flat out bad, but the creative decisions (not to mention the art) seem... capricious. Starting as a skid row parody of a parody of private eye fiction clichés, the book abruptly dilutes itself with a science fiction milieu, for reasons not yet in evidence. There's something here, but the creators haven't quite gotten to it yet.

From Salt Peter Press:

THE LUMP by Chris Wisnia ($14.95)

A trade paperback collection of Wisnia's wacky detective/crime novel from the pages of TABLOIA, with additional features. It's a clever story of corpse mutilation, mad scientists, and paranoid politics, mixed with '50s cop show gimmicks and a deft dose of deconstructionism, and Wisnia heightens the effect with multiple endings that allow for examination of our expectations of fiction while maintaining a straight face (though the book's obviously tongue-in-cheek too). The art, simple and effective, harkens back to some of the better underground comics. All in all, one of the smartest graphic novels I've read in a long time. Get it.

From Boom! Studios:

TALENT #2 by Christopher Golden, Tom Sneigoski & Paul Azaceta ($3.99)

The sole survivor of a jetliner crash finds its victims lending him their skills and memories while brutal government assassins try to eliminate him. The structure and action are basic Jerry Bruckheimer (not surprisingly, it has already been optioned for the film) but this is an improvement on last issue, playing more to character now that the premise has been established. There's some quasi-mysticism mucking things up - the villains seem to be referencing THE DA VINCI CODE for their motivations - but as a thrill ride it works fine, with Azaceta's expressive, accomplished art the glue that holds it all together.

HERO SQUARED #2 by Keith Giffen, JM DeMatteis & Joe Abraham ($3.99)

More superhero silliness from the people who brought you JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA. Slacker Milo Stone and his parallel universe superhero version Captain Valor go see a psychiatrist to work out their differences. This series has been confidently written and consistently funny - the interplay here is a hoot - and artist Abraham gets better and better. But the series is also becoming wearing; cumulatively it's becoming a much too long Giffen-DeMatteis lesson on treading water. The series has dropped out so many questions, mainly pertaining to what happened to Captain Valor's archenemy-cum-ex-girlfriend to make her that way and what really destroyed their universe, that it just keeps dodging or ignoring. Amusing as all this is, it's time for them to lay their cards on the table and get on with it.

JEREMIAH HARM #4 by Keith Giffen, Alan Grant & Rafael Albuquerque ($3.99)

Aliens wreck the South Bronx to find a weapon that will destroy the universe, while brutal spacebound Earthman Jeremiah Harm. Harm and his villains remain basically tough guy caricatures, but the high spot of the series is the small collection of poor, doomed humans who set aside their cultural differences to fumblingly defend their homeworld. This is basically a long fight scene, decently handled. Old-time LOBO fans ought to love it.

SECOND WAVE #4-5 by Michael Alan Nelson & Chee ($2.99@)

The problem with series like this, a sequel to WAR OF THE WORLDS, is that they have to avoid their main story arc in order to keep going; dealing with the central issue indicates a wrapup. So these issues focus not on hero Miles' counter-assault on invading Martians or even on his sense of inadequacy, but on the breakdown of society in the wake of the invasion. Not that it's bad - both Nelson & Chee do a good job - it just lacks story momentum.

THE BLACK PLAGUE #1 by Joe Casey & Julia Bax ($3.99)

In a USA apparently run by clandestine mob families who deck their soldiers out in generic supervillain flunky costumes, the world's greatest supervillain is an independent who's really the world's only superhero, out to take the underworld down from within. The art's nice enough, and Casey's writing is always dependable (and I'm not sure why the hero's costume is basically X's) but aside from the high concept it's pretty middle of the road. There's not a lot of lock onto here, and the last page gives me the strange feeling it started life as some rejected Modok pitch for Marvel. It's okay.

THE SAVAGE BROTHERS #1 by Andrew Cosby, Johanna Stokes & Rafael Albuquerque ($3.99)

A lighthearted romp through the apocalypse, complete with clockwork plagues of frogs, as two good ol' boys become zombie hunters-for-hire. A pleasant blend of simple concept, straightforward execution, brisk dialogue and sharp art. Not much else to say about it except check it out.

X ISLE by Andrew Cosby, Michael Alan Nelson & Greg Scott ($3.99)

No, it's not a knockoff of LOST, but more GILLIGAN'S ISLAND meets JURASSIC PARK. Without Gilligan or Ginger. A band of scientists and adventurers (ain't they always?) track down the origin of a mystery lifeform, only to be stranded by a weird electrical storm on an island of monsters. That's the setup anyway, and so far, aside from the prerequisite "quickly sketch the pissy interpersonal conflicts" moments (mainly between the obsessive hero-scientist and his grown but still-feeling-neglected daughter), setup's all it is, so summary judgments won't be possible until I see more. The dialogue gets the job done without any memorable moments, but Scott's artwork is very pretty, much improved since the last time I saw it and it wasn't bad then.

THE STARDUST KID #4 by JM DeMatteis & Mike Ploog ($3.99)

Uh. Okay. Though it's always lovely to see Ploog's artwork, it's too bad it's on what amounts to a dippy, predictable fantasy story. (Whether it helps to have seen #1-3, I couldn't say.) A couple kids, abetted by really obnoxious "let's talk right at the reader" narration, wander a perilous fantasy landscape - it's a little THE HOBBIT, a little THE WIZARD OF OZ - where nothing is as it seems, and search for their designated savior, the titular Stardust Kid. And you'll never in a million years guess where he is. I'm sure, like most fantasy material, this stuff purports to a higher allegorical meaning, but that's like saying cotton candy purports to being an energy food. Empty calories, but very pretty. (Though who exactly decided the hero's face should be given alcoholic coloring? Very distracting.)

From Dark Horse Comics:

THE ESCAPISTS #1 by Brian K. Vaughan, Philip Bond & Eduardo Barreto ($1)

A sweet tribute to/continuation/exploitation of Michael Chabon's bittersweet homage to the creators of the Golden Age of Comics, THE ADVENTURES OF CAVALIER AND KLAY, this pulls the neat trick of simultaneously reimagining a faux-classic 1940s superhero comic as a modern alt-comic (a young boy loses his father then grows up identifying with his dad's favorite boyhood superhero, Cavalier & Klay's The Escapist) and reimagining the modern alt-comic as a superhero comic. Vaughan and Bond (with help from Baretto on "fictional" sections) breezily follows the kid through school to the inheritance that allows him to buy the Escapist rights, for which he develops both obvious and slightly screwy uses. A fun, very well modulated first issue, but I hesitate to think where the series might go from here, though as long as the hero and his friends don't ultimately learn that the Escapist and his conspiracy backstory are real, it stands a decent chance of turning out well.

Gah. Out of time and I've barely scratched the mountain. More next week.

While I don't think anyone wants to test it, even if planes exploded over New York City, I doubt the falling rubble would generate that many fatalities short of plunging into crowded buildings and theoretically our air response teams are now trained to prevent that sort of thing. Still, have to get that fear and paranoia out there.

The timing was interesting, to the point that even the news media are starting to take notice of it. The other night, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann did a whole show linking revelations of Administration hijinks and embarrassments to subsequent announcements of thwarted or potentially impending terrorist activities in a pretty well spelled out cause-and-effect relationship, which is to say that when the Administration has been caught with its pants down it has consistently diverted the attention of the news media and theoretically the American public with scares intended to push home the message that our very existence depends on supporting the Administration, because the evil ones are out there ready to destroy us. Presumably the evil ones now include the Connecticut Democrats who voted out Sen. Joe Lieberman a couple days before the "liquid bombers" were revealed, prompting a lot of pundits around the country to observe that as much as Lieberman's ouster resulted from growing sentiment against the war (and Lieberman was one who strongly believed that Iraq should be invaded, and who the hell cares whether they have WMDs?) it was perhaps caused more by his cozy association with the President, whose approval ratings continue to drop. Except during those instances when terrorist plots are "revealed."

It's easy to brush off questions about the timing as "conspiracy theory," except that in this case the British have flat out admitted it. The first twitch came when White House Press Secretary Tony Snow bragged that the Hand Puppet was not caught flat-footed by news of the arrests (as the Hand Puppet's initial reaction suggested) and that British Prime Minister Tony Blair had briefed the Hand Puppet on the matter weeks ago. In theory, an intelligent press corps would then leap to the question: so why the sudden declaration of a crisis? British intelligence was theoretically onto the plot months ago (which turns out to be true by their own admission; they had a man inside the plot, which in itself is always suspicious, given the long history of intelligence operatives as agents provocateurs), and if there were real concerns about "liquid safety" on planes, a set of "precautionary rules" could easily have been quietly instated with little public fuss at all. In fact, we now know that, despite last week's arrests, the plot was nowhere near fruition and British authorities didn't even want to arrest them but were pressured into it by the White House. Again, suspicious timing. (This turns out to have probably been a good thing; British authorities also inadvertently revealed that they would have preferred to arrest the suspects after they had successfully bombed a plane or several.)

To indicate just how seriously authorities were taking the threat: the idea behind the plot was that liquids innocuous on their own merits, would become powerful explosives when mixed together. But at airports, passengers carrying liquids were instructed at security checkpoints to dump all liquids - coffee, mother's milk bottled for nursing children, bottles of water and unopened cans of soda, etc. - into collection bins. Where the liquids mixed together. Real bright. This is security by laziness, a notion highlighted by an expert in such matters who spoke yesterday morning on the Today Show. (I didn't catch his name, unfortunately.) He mentioned that while some liquids can be mixed with others to form explosives, the reactive agents are easy to identify by anyone trained for it, and you can't mistake them for water or milk. But such training is probably outside the budgets of airport security firms that to this day pay minimum wage to the people who guard our well-being.

More comes out about this daily, in dribs and drabs that no reporter has yet deigned to put together, though Olbermann's report suggests there's a little waking up going on in the news community. (The other "big terrorist news" of the week involved suspicious looking Texans committing the highly suspicious act of going to Michigan to buy Tracfones for resale. Despite a highly publicized arrest amid highly publicized speculations they'd use the phones detonators for a bomb to blow up the Mackinaw Bridge, the "perps" were quietly released without any charges brought. Whether they were allowed to export phones from the state I don't know.) In the meantime, the real message of last week's "terror scare," which mainly badly (further) inconvenienced air travelers so that the White House could score desperately needed popularity points (all one or two of them), isn't that "we are working to keep America secure," but, as Americans left behind their lattes and toothpaste into order to get where they had to go, that everyone is a suspect, and we should all get good and used to being treated that way, because that's how it is from now on.

This is one of your basic weird moments. A couple years ago I wrote a modern sword-and-sorcery graphic novel for Platinum called PALADINS, which is still being drawn by JJ (who also drew the rapidly upcoming WHISPER #0 from Boom! Studios; pester your retailer for it now). Suddenly someone sends me this link... Out of the blue, man...

The latest season of ULTIMATE FIGHTER begins Thursday night (Aug. 17) at 10P on Spike TV. Just so you know.

Congratulations to Charles Bryan, the first to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "strange." In all the pictured comics is either a title or character with the word "strange" in it. Charles wishes to urge everyone to check out cult favorite comics writer Steve Gerber's website, particularly his blog.

Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week's Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn't been an issue so far.) There's a clue somewhere in the column each week but you have to look for it, it's not going to crawl out and bite you. (Again, if you need more help, you might want to try The Grand Comic Book Database, whence come the covers in question.)

By the way, CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS #1 (from IDW), featuring a menagerie of top comics talent plus the murder of my fellow CBR columnist Rich Johnston at a comics convention should be out imminently if it isn't already. And for those who've asked, WHISPER #0 is drawn (beautifully, I might add) and expected imminently.

Remember, the Paper Movies Store is now wide open and selling artwork, books and pdf collections of my Master Of The Obvious columns, my political writings, and various comics scripts. Go take a look.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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